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So.

Closed up shop today.  Turned in my key.  The old place is barren, empty, strewn with bits of paper but nothing substantial.

End of an era, I suppose.

Quite a few people have been taking photos, documenting the tear-down process at Between Books.  Much like quite a few of them were taking photos before the tear-down began, establishing a photographic record of The Way Things Were.

I was not one of those people.  I had ample opportunity, of course, but no interest.  For one thing, I prefer to remember the place as it was.

For another, I already had something to help me remember what it looked like.

Some years back, in happier times, one of my teachers asked us to write a bit of descriptive text about a place we frequented, be it work, home, school or social venue.

In a way, when I wrote mine about Between Books, I had all of those bases covered.

Ultimately it took me a bit more than a thousand words to paint this particular picture, though the ending, written over six years ago, would ultimately prove woefully prophetic.  At the time, my professor urged me to submit it to the newspaper or a magazine, but I was significantly more reticent about my writing at the time.  Under the circumstances though, I think it’s about time to trot it out.

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Pull into the Town & Country shopping center on the corner of Harvey Road and Philadelphia Pike, walk from the car to a modest storefront situated between a video rental shop and a dance studio, and almost immediately the eyes light upon a strange sight.  A bizarre sculpture of some sort of alien creature, multi-headed and many-armed, festooned with odd wares.  Posters crowd the windows, declaring everything from the release dates to concert dates to nothing at all.  A row of books faces out through the windows, samples of what is to be found within.  Approach the door, tucked into an alcove, and more signs clamor for attention.  Sadly, least visible of these signs is the one saying “Pull”, and the push-bar of the door baffles many who encounter it for the first time.

Probably the first thing to strike someone upon opening the door would be the almost painfully loud chiming of the bells in their ear.  Almost immediately, however, the path further into the store is blocked by the new release shelves, packed full of paperback books, covers facing out, a barrage of titles and images.  The flooring is cheap synthetic tile, and typically gritty from the passage of customers.  Strange mobiles hang from the ceiling like herbs in some ancient apothecary.  To the right, the store recedes back far into the building, much further than most would expect given the moderately narrow store front.  Turn down that aisle, and soon the counter comes fully into view, a raised platform in the center of the store surrounded by glass faced cabinets packed full of odds and ends ranging from jewelry to oils and incense to music CDs.  A few steps further down that aisle, past the squat gray index filing cabinet stuffed with pewter miniatures and the looming paint rack, a strange shelving unit stands, cubes of glass loaded with a variety of wares, all of them looking somewhat forlorn and forgotten.  Once past that graveyard of forgotten goods, there are shelves overflowing with Japanese animated movies and television shows, with DVDs packing the walls and VHS tapes spilling out into piles on the floor.  A faded sign proclaims a sale, VHS tapes for five dollars, an obvious attempt to get rid of product that is no longer popular.  Turn left to face the counter, and there will be found yet more DVDs lining the tops and piled along the base, and within the dusty cabinet, the gleam of silver jewelry studding blue trays.  A trio of flatscreen computer monitors are faintly visible behind the mounded wares, and a tiny space left open for transactions that seems almost out of place amidst all the clutter.

Walk widdershins around the counter, step onto the faded blue carpet that lines the rest of the store, and pass a skeletal contraption of black wire panels and shining silver hooks supporting a veritable menagerie of action figures.  To the right, piles of almost unidentifiable stuff are topped with whatever collectible miniatures game happens to be in vogue at the moment.  A few steps forward, and another array of black wire and silver hooks looms above, burgeoning with yet more pewter miniatures in slick colorful plastic packaging.  On the left, the counter groans under the weight of hundreds of books.  Art books, comic books, books about TV shows, books about movies, books about just about anything so long as those books are not conveniently sized to fit on a shelf and are sufficiently new that the owner has decided that they could benefit from increased exposure.  Under that colossal weight, the glass fronted cabinet seems strangely forlorn, containing a bare handful of vinyl model kits scarcely visible under a sheath of dust.  Resuming the journey around the counter, a monolithic structure slightly to the right grabs the eye.  Shallow shelves line its surface, and facing out from those shelves are comic books featuring all the heroes of small children; Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, even the occasional Archie comic.

Round the corner, and back onto the tile.  The windows to the outside are visible ahead once more, though somewhat stranger to see with all the posters facing out rather than in.  To the right, a rack so packed with t-shirts that it can scarcely be used.  Above them projects a bizarre sight, some sort of inflatable head, crimson in color, appearing to be a strange hybrid between a lizard and a moose.  On the left, the counter surface is crowded with magazines, the glass cabinets below filled with miscellaneous cards.  A few steps further and the cards give way to CDs, while on the opposite wall the t-shirts give way to the roleplaying games that stretch out to the windows and up beyond the reach of the average man.  Stride into that strange territory, be careful of the cluttered path, and find board games and greeting cards and a lonely cabinet filled with goods ranging from tea to tigerseye, though it seems obvious to even the casual observer that this cabinet is but rarely opened.   Turn back towards the counter, past the flanking magazine rack with periodicals dating back far further than expected, and see racks of incense lining the top of the counter, while below tarot cards and scented oils fill the cabinets.  Walk past this olfactory barrage and pass the newest hardback books, stuffed haphazardly onto overflowing shelves.  Turn once more to the left, stride past the counter and once again back onto the carpet, and the center of the store awaits.

A large table dominates the central area, burdened with box upon box of back issue comic books.  Stacks of comics line the top of those boxes, evidence that even their capacious storage is insufficient.  From here, the store is divided into three aisles.  A moderately spacious center aisle, home to tales of horror, tales of mystery, and even tales of translating English to Spanish.  Narrow benches, blue vinyl on brass trim, sit in the center of the aisle.  Not especially inviting or comfortable, that is also their sole virtue, as their narrow profile allows for sufficient passage to either side.  A glass-faced cabinet stands on the right side of this aisle, just past the Horror section.  Within are porcelain statues, pewter figurines, and other goods generally deemed too fragile to be left in unprotected surroundings.  The aisle that lies nearest to the door houses a varied selection, ranging from used paperbacks to graphic novels to the latest theories on how JFK was assassinated by aliens and how to win the love of your life, through magic of course.  The aisle furthest from the door boasts perhaps the biggest collection of new sci-fi and fantasy novels in the state, with some other genres thrown in for good measure.  Dangling from the ceiling in this aisle, dangerously low in some places, are model spacecraft from a variety of popular SF programs ranging from Battlestar Galactica to Babylon 5, a veritable space battle taking place a mere seven feet off the ground.  Everywhere books line the floor in neat piles, books stand in cardboard displays, books are stuffed above the shelves in barely visible stacks, signs that inventory has far exceeded storage capacity.  The lighting is comfortably dim, though at times the aisles can seem somewhat claustrophobic.  Walk down any of these passages and soon the back of the store will be reached, an often welcome relief from the crowded aisles that preceded it.

Tables typically stand in rows, with folding chairs sitting around them, often occupied by whomever is using that particular area for their own purposes.  On any given night of the week, some sort of game will be being played there, ranging from card games to board games to intricate miniatures arrayed in formations of battle.  The walls here, like everywhere else, are lined with shelves, books ranging from romance novels to children’s novels to art books, stuffed into an extra deep set of shelves sized to accommodate their unusual dimensions.  A round rack, triple tiered, covered in books face out in display, stands before a blue velvet curtain that hides a simple door leading into areas of the store off-limits to customers.  Behind that door, chaos reigns, free from the constraints of public safety and professional appearance.  Boxes upon boxes, stacked in sagging piles on rickety shelves, containing wares that have not seen the light of day in decades.  Desks are faintly visible, shrouded beneath layers of clutter and discarded papers.  Hanging on one of the few clear spaces along the walls is a framed photograph of the space shuttle Columbia on her maiden flight.

Places such as this are few and far between in modern America, and growing scarcer by the day.  Their loss is tragic, individuality sacrificed on the altar of convenience, and if trends continue as they have, it is not hard to imagine an America where we all shop at the same store and eat the same restaurant, and that both of those might be in the same building.  Gone then, would be the stores where the owner knows your name and what you need before you even ask.  In their place, a warehouse of discounted goods staffed by employees who might have some inkling of their own two aisle domain, but no concept of what lies outside it.  Some savings cost more than expected.

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